Zak Taylor, a student in the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center’s automotive program, doesn’t speak any French. Adrien, a student in the motorcycle mechanic program at Lycée Henri Fertet near Besançon, France, is still adjusting to spoken English.
Put the two side-by-side under the hood of a Chevrolet pickup, and the language barrier evaporates. Automotive electrical systems spark a conversation they both understand.
Adrien is one of 10 students who visited CATEC from Besançon, Charlottesville’s French sister city, to practice their English with native speakers and hone their mechanical craft in an alien environment.
The program’s benefits go both ways, said Catherine Lee, CATEC officer for planning and workforce development.
“Typically, CATEC students are not looked at as an opportunity to do cultural exchange, and we need to change that,” she said.
Lee expects to sign an agreement soon to continue the exchange in the coming years. Eventually, Lee said, that will mean sending CATEC students to France.
“One of the other attractive features is that our schools have the same mission,” Lee said. “The rich cultural exchange, in addition to the technical training, is huge.”
Once wrenches come out, the differences between France and the United States are superficial.
“The workshop here is more small and the students speak more fast,” Adrien said.
For Taylor, one morning in the shop with his French counterparts expanded his mechanical know-how. One of the students, he said, taught him how to diagnose a cylinder misfire using exhaust manifold temperature.
“He touched the manifold, and one tube was cold and the other was hot,” which indicated one piston was not firing, Taylor said. “That was something I had never thought about.”
The cultural exchange at CATEC, in which students stay with host families, is part of a two-week trip organized in part by Séverine Fremy, a visiting teacher from the French Ministry of Education. The trip began with a weeklong stay in Washington.
The main goal of the trip is to boost students’ job prospects at home by bolstering their English proficiency. Even in France, said instructor Bertrand Certeux, many motorcycle shop manuals are in English.
“For these students, English is very important,” said Catherine Jélézian, Lycée Fertet’s principal. “They must learn English.”
Certeux, who volunteered to lead the first visit with students in 2014 after visiting CATEC with a group of teachers in 2013, teaches technical English as part of his regular mechanics curriculum.
Learning conversational English while working with fellow mechanics gives Certeux’s protégés an extra leg up.
“They get a better job for the same qualifications,” said Lycée Fertet English teacher Corinne Pagnoz. “If you have two students with the same diplomas, and one speaks English, it will help.”
Visiting student Marine, who is in her second year in Certeux’s program, said her confidence already has improved.
“Before, it was more difficult to speak English, but now it has gotten easier,” she said.
For Marine, vehicles and architecture have been the most striking cultural takeaways.
“The houses are beautiful here, and there are very big cars everywhere,” she said.
The students head back to France on Tuesday.